The Nature Fix: The Awe of the Night Sky


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It was late at night when I arrived at a campsite in a remote stretch of southern Utah. I stepped from the car and the first thing that hit me was a powerful wave of the river-sage-desert scent that filled me up and blissed me out. Next, my brain processed the crickets along with the utter absence of human sound. It was like climbing out of a basement into a sensory wonderland. But it wasn’t until my eyes drew upward into the darkness and took in the billion distant points of light that I felt the world turn upside down.

No matter how many times we look into the spectral depths of our solar system, it still feels rich and ancient. In his essay, Living Philosophies, Einstein wrote the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious, and he was pretty adamant about it: “It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.”

One way to think about awe is that it involves perceiving something vast and outside our normal frames of reference. In other words, it blows our minds. A true night sky—one unencumbered by human settlements—almost always evokes awe. Somewhere in our brains we remember this is the same sky seen by a lineage of ancestors who likely felt the same way. We feel tethered to our past, our future and our delicate spindle of rotating galactic awesomeness. The Milky Way is a vertiginous reminder that we are standing on a planet that is hurtling around the sun at a rate of nearly 67,000 miles per hour, as it has for approximately 4.5 billion years.

But the dark sky is a disappearing resource, thanks to pervasive light pollution from human settlements. Henry Beston, the writer-naturalist, spoke poetically about the loss of natural darkness as far back as 1928. To see it, most of us have to travel somewhere far away. I’m here to tell you it’s worth it, for our mental as well as physical health.

When we feel awe, we feel connected to something much, much larger than ourselves. These doses of humility, ironically, can make us feel stronger, more resilient and kinder to each other. Studies show that when we experience awe we feel like time slows down, and we behave more generously to one another.

And when we spend a few days outdoors, immersed in natural cycles of darkness and light, we reap other benefits. Exposure to natural daylight, which is 10 to 100 times brighter than artificial light, can boost our mood and help reset our circadian rhythms.

Exposure to darkness at night gives us a break from the artificial lights of civilization, which have been shown to inhibit sleep-promoting neurons and suppress the release of natural melatonin in our brains. In fact, a recent study showed that even one weekend of camping can be sufficient to reset our internal clocks.

To learn more about where the darkest patches can be found, check out this finder from the International Dark-Sky Association and this map from the National Park Service. Then feel the world turn upside down from your tiny perch under the Milky Way.

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